Posts Tagged ‘David Einhorn’

Rolfe Winkler of Reuters blog Contingent Capital has a great summary of David Einhorn’s talk to the Value Investing Congress. Despite what we say in the title, Einhorn is hardly fickle (we just couldn’t resist). If anything, he’s stubborn to a fault, so it is interesting that he’s changed his mind so dramatically about the influence of macro events on his traditional bottom-up investment style. In his speech (.pdf via Winkler’s blog), he sets out the rationale behind the change, what he perceives the current macro risks to be, and what he’s doing in response. Apologies in advance for the huge blocks of text. We believe that this is the most important factor influencing the market and the economy, and will be for the next 5-10 years. Ignore it at your peril.

Speaking of his change in attitude to secular macro trends, Einhorn said:

I want to revisit [Greenlight’s 2005 position in MDC Holdings, a homerbuilder] because the loss was not bad luck; it was bad analysis. I down played the importance of what was then an ongoing housing bubble. On the very same day, at the very same conference, a more experienced and wiser investor, Stanley Druckenmiller, explained in gory detail the big picture problem the country faced from a growing housing bubble fueled by a growing debt bubble. At the time, I wondered whether even if he were correct, would it be possible to convert such big picture macro-thinking into successful portfolio management? I thought this was particularly tricky since getting both the timing of big macro changes as well as the market’s recognition of them correct has proven at best a difficult proposition. Smart investors had been complaining about the housing bubble since at least 2001. I ignored Stan, rationalizing that even if he were right, there was no way to know when he would be right. This was an expensive error.

The lesson that I have learned is that it isn’t reasonable to be agnostic about the big picture. For years I had believed that I didn’t need to take a view on the market or the economy because I considered myself to be a “bottom up” investor. Having my eyes open to the big picture doesn’t mean abandoning stock picking, but it does mean managing the longshort exposure ratio more actively, worrying about what may be brewing in certain industries, and when appropriate, buying some just-in-case insurance for foreseeable macro risks even if they are hard to time.

What, according to Einhorn, is the secular macro trend most influencing the market and economy? The inflationary policies of the current administration:

Presently, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner have become the quintessential short-term decision makers. They explicitly “do whatever it takes” to “solve one problem at a time” and deal with the unintended consequences later. It is too soon for history to evaluate their work, because there hasn’t been time for the unintended consequences of the “do whatever it takes” decision-making to materialize.

Rather than deal with these simple problems with simple, obvious solutions, the official reform plans are complicated, convoluted and designed to only have the veneer of reform while mostly serving the special interests. The complications serve to reduce transparency, preventing the public at large from really seeing the overwhelming influence of the banks in shaping the new regulation.

In dealing with the continued weak economy, our leaders are so determined not to repeat the perceived mistakes of the 1930s that they are risking policies with possibly far worse consequences designed by the same people at the Fed who ran policy with the short term view that asset bubbles don’t matter because the fallout can be managed after they pop. That view created a disaster that required unprecedented intervention for which our leaders congratulated themselves for doing whatever it took to solve. With a sense of mission accomplished, the G-20 proclaimed “it worked.”

We are now being told that the most important thing is to not remove the fiscal and monetary support too soon. Christine Romer, a top advisor to the President, argues that we made a great mistake by withdrawing stimulus in 1937.

An alternative lesson from the double dip the economy took in 1938 is that the GDP created by massive fiscal stimulus is artificial. So whenever it is eventually removed, there will be significant economic fall out. Our choice may be either to maintain large annual deficits until our creditors refuse to finance them or tolerate another leg down in our economy by accepting some measure of fiscal discipline.

Over the last couple of years we have adopted a policy of private profits and socialized risks. We are transferring many private obligations onto the national ledger. Although our leaders ought to make some serious choices, they appear too trapped in short-termism and special interests to make them. Taking no action is an action.

In the nearer-term the deficit on a cash basis is about $1.6 trillion or 11% of GDP. President Obama forecasts $1.4 trillion next year, and with an optimistic economic outlook, $9 trillion over the next decade. The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research recently published a study that indicated that “by all relevant debt indicators, the U.S. fiscal scenario will soon approximate the economic scenario for countries on the verge of a sovereign debt default.”

Further, the Federal Open Market Committee members may not recognize inflation when they see it, as looking at inflation solely through the prices of goods and services, while ignoring asset inflation, can lead to a repeat of the last policy error of holding rates too low for too long.

At the same time, the Treasury has dramatically shortened the duration of the government debt. As a result, higher rates become a fiscal issue, not just a monetary one. The Fed could reach the point where it perceives doing whatever it takes requires it to become the buyer of Treasuries of first and last resort.

I believe there is a real possibility that the collapse of any of the major currencies could have a similar domino effect on re-assessing the credit risk of the other fiat currencies run by countries with structural deficits and large, unfunded commitments to aging populations.

I believe that the conventional view that government bonds should be “risk free” and tied to nominal GDP is at risk of changing. Periodically, high quality corporate bonds have traded at lower yields than sovereign debt. That could happen again.

His response has been to buy physical gold “as insurance against sovereign default(s).”

Now, the question for us as investors is how to manage some of these possible risks. Four years ago I spoke at this conference and said that I favored my Grandma Cookie’s investment style of investing in stocks like Nike, IBM, McDonalds and Walgreens over my Grandpa Ben’s style of buying gold bullion and gold stocks. He feared the economic ruin of our country through a paper money and deficit driven hyper inflation. I explained how Grandma Cookie had been right for the last thirty years and would probably be right for the next thirty as well. I subscribed to Warren Buffett’s old criticism that gold just sits there with no yield and viewed gold’s long-term value as difficult to assess.

However, the recent crisis has changed my view. The question can be flipped: how does one know what the dollar is worth given that dollars can be created out of thin air or dropped from helicopters? Just because something hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean it won’t. Yes, we should continue to buy stocks in great companies, but there is room for Grandpa Ben’s view as well.

I have seen many people debate whether gold is a bet on inflation or deflation. As I see it, it is neither. Gold does well when monetary and fiscal policies are poor and does poorly when they appear sensible. Gold did very well during the Great Depression when FDR debased the currency. It did well again in the money printing 1970s, but collapsed in response to Paul Volcker’s austerity. It ultimately made a bottom around 2001 when the excitement about our future budget surpluses peaked.

Prospectively, gold should do fine unless our leaders implement much greater fiscal and monetary restraint than appears likely. Of course, gold should do very well if there is a sovereign debt default or currency crisis.

A few weeks ago, the Office of Inspector General called out the Treasury Department for misrepresenting the position of the banks last fall. The Treasury’s response was an unapologetic expression that amounted to saying that at that point “doing whatever it takes” meant pulling a Colonel Jessup: “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” At least we know what we are dealing with.

When I watch Chairman Bernanke, Secretary Geithner and Mr. Summers on TV, read speeches written by the Fed Governors, observe the “stimulus” black hole, and think about our short-termism and lack of fiscal discipline and political will, my instinct is to want to short the dollar. But then I look at the other major currencies. The Euro, the Yen, and the British Pound might be worse. So, I conclude that picking one these currencies is like choosing my favorite dental procedure. And I decide holding gold is better than holding cash, especially now, where both earn no yield.

For years, the discussion has been that our deficit spending will pass the costs onto “our grandchildren.” I believe that this is no longer the case and that the consequences will be seen during the lifetime of the leaders who have pursued short-term popularity over our solvency. The recent economic crisis and our response has brought forward the eventual reconciliation into a window that is near enough that it makes sense for investors to buy some insurance to protect themselves from a possible systemic event. To slightly modify Alexis de Tocqueville: Events can move from the impossible to the inevitable without ever stopping at the probable.

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